By Meryl Maybruch
Each year around Yom Kippur, I think about a story my father, Reb Yechiel Benzion Fishoff, told me about the day he returned to Wloczewa, the small town in Poland where he was born. His family had moved to the city of Lodz when he was a young boy, but his maternal grandparents remained in Wloczewa and it was always home.
When my father was 16, war broke out and his parents sent him to another city to determine if it would be safe for the family. He left his home with his tefillin, his father’s coat, and some money – never dreaming that he would not see his family again.
One could write a book about his travels and miracles during that time. Eventually, he made his way to Shanghai. Once there, he was able to exchange letters with his family. But at some point, the letters stopped. He remained in Shanghai for the rest of the war, and never knew what happened to his family.
In the 1970’s, my father traveled with my mother back to Wloczewa hoping to learn about his family’s fate. While there, he met an old man who told him that his family had been taken by the Nazis on Yom Kippur and sent to their deaths at Treblinka. He told my father that he should consider Yom Kippur as the yahrzeit of his family.
My father learned that the Nazis often took advantage of Jewish holidays to round up the Jews in a town. It was efficient: instead of having to go door-to-door, they simply waited for a Shabbos or a Yom Tov, when everyone was together, to descend upon a synagogue. It is that very tactic they used in Wloczewa on Yom Kippur. I have to believe that there were Jews – like my family – who knew they were taking a chance by going to shul, and yet they persisted. The Nazis took everything but their faith.
Before this visit, my father, like so many who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, did not know his family’s yarzheit. The old man’s words – Yom Kippur is their yarzheit – has heightened the meaning of Yom Kippur for him. The chance encounter with the man 40 years ago was important because it brought him some closure.
Today, my father is a survivor, business man, and community activist. I am grateful to the old man in Wloczewa for giving him a little better understanding – more than many families were ever able to have. My father’s story of survival and rebirth is now part of the the Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center. Amud Aish focuses on how Jews maintained their faith through the horrors of the Holocaust – and how they rebuilt afterwards. My role there is collecting these stories. I spend my days meeting with survivors and their families, learning their stories, looking through their basements and attics, and seeing the artifacts and documents they have from the period. The museum ensures that future generations will know about what happened.
This Yom Kippur, I will mourn the six million Jews who perished, and I will mourn the family I never met. Good Yom Tov, and Gmar Tov to all.
Mrs. Meryl Maybruch is the Director of Artifact Collection at the Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center.